It is Meskerem, the first month of the five-hundred and twenty-fifth year after Christ’s birth. My family and I are to travel to Himyar. With our oldest two daughters already married, my husband Ermias and I are taking with us only our seven year-old daughter, Azeb.
I cannot believe I am soon to leave this land, Abyssinia; a precious motherland that I grew up venerating. I wonder if other women feel the same way about our Empire, or may be it is because I became privy to our ancient history when I was still a small child. I clearly remember the time; Prince Kaleb’s tutor Abba Samuel started the day’s lesson by telling the eight-year old prince the story of the creation of our land.
His lilting voice rose up and down making the story all the more engrossing. My mother and I were sitting at the corner of the room, where she was spinning cotton, and I playfully carding the cotton balls to take out the seeds. From time to time, I looked at the other corner where the prince, the tutor and his assistant were sitting on a large ottoman carpet embroidered with silk. Prince Kaleb, who was reclining on a soft silk cushion suddenly sat erect, eager to hear the story while the tutor read from a scroll.
Millions of years ago, our land was in turmoil from great forces of nature. The Ethio-Arabian landmass started lifting up. There was nothing to abate the pressure brewing up inside this swelling, like a pregnant mother in labour.
A topography of unequal beauty was born in this land that we now call Ethiopia. The variety is immense; flat-topped plateau, arid salt plains, high rugged mountains, deep river gorges, rolling plains, lofty vertical escarpments. A land of such extreme contrasts, that makes one think that the Creator must have a sense of humour.
The Creator also seemed to have a weakness for this land. Thus He chose it as a residence for the first humans. Isolated by the majestic mountains that surround the country, a unique and almost mysterious civilization thrived across millennia. Ethiopians are known to have the oldest continuous monarchy in history. It began about three thousand years ago with the legendary Queen of Sheba.
The Queen’s rule extended from Madagascar in the East, to Nubia in the West and Egyptian borders in the North, and down to lake Victoria in the South. Having heard from Ethiopian merchants about the mighty and wise King Solomon who ruled over Israel, she went to witness it for herself.
The King in return was besotted with the Queen of Sheba’s beauty and intelligence. Before her return to her Empire based in Axum in the Northern Ethiopia, the Queen conceived a son from King Solomon. The son, Menelik I, is known as the first emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty. Upon reaching adulthood, Menelik wanted to visit his father in Jerusalem. The King was delighted to see his son. He gladly imparted his wisdom and experiences of governance, and invited him to stay.
Menelik wanted to go back and rule over his mother’s domain. His father blessed him and ordered the first born of all the Priests to accompany him back to Ethiopia. One of these men, hoping to take God’s favour along with him, removed the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple, and smuggled it out with him. Upon arrival in Ethiopia, Menelik was sad and angry when he found out about this abomination. His advisors assured him that the fact that they made it back safely, meant that it was God’s will for the Ark to come to Ethiopia. King Solomon was inconsolable when he found out that the Ark of the Covenant was lost to the Israelites.
Prince Kaleb’s eyes grew wide with surprise. He turned to his tutor’s assistant, for confirmation. The assistant, a bemused smile dancing at the corner of his lips, nodded his head with affirmation.
“Yes, my Lord, what your esteemed tutor said about this land is true. I have it right here on the almanac, if you wish me to read it for you.” The young assistant tutor, a ferengi; a Syrian named Esthappan, came into the royal court only two years ago. His ship was wrecked and Abyssinian seafarers, who rescued him, presented him to the King as a slave, during the four hundred ninety-fifth year, after the birth of Christ.
“Melkam, well…” said the prince; “How about our people being the first to inhabit the world
I stopped carding the cotton, my eyes looking past my mother’s spinning spindle, enzirt, which twirled round and round, while trying to digest the magnitude of this news. What a wonderful country we have.
“That too was confirmed by the writing of Diodrus Siculus, an antiquities historian from Greece” replied Esthappan. ‘Siculus also added that Ethiopians were the first to have found the worship of God, and the practice of the law’.
God must have truly had a weakness for our land and people. How else could we be so blessed? I couldn’t wait to discuss this with Kaleb. My mother, oblivious to the conversation at the other corner, looked alarmed to see me gaping, and sharply nudged me. I quickly composed myself and picked up another ball of cotton.
Although Kaleb was my cousin, we were more like siblings. We were born in the same year, and when the Queen, Kaleb’s mother was too poorly to feed the infant, my mother (who was her sister-in-law as well as her lady-in-waiting), started feeding us both as one does with twins. When the queen passed away five years later, my mother who was already Kaleb’s tut enat (wet nurse), also became his foster mother.
Kaleb and I remained close throughout our childhood, sharing an insatiable curiosity for our history. The 5th day of the month of Hidar, the day after we turned ten-years-old, became the highlight of our education. Kaleb and my father were to travel to Kush for the prince to witness for himself the great stone stela our forefather King Ezana erected at the confluence of the Atbara and Nile rivers. I pestered my father so much to take me along, that eventually he agreed for my mother and I to join him. My excitement had no bounds as we prepared for our travel. A caravan of three hundred horses was to accompany us. It was quite a sight; the soldiers with their white cotton tunics and lion mane collars, the priests with their long robes and turbans, the royal family with bright coloured silk embroidered robes. The servants and slaves wore traditional cotton kemis, with shema, scarfs.
We were to ride our beautiful horses while the rest of entourage were to ride on mules. Our food and belongings were loaded on camel backs. We left our city, Axum on first day of the month, Tir of that year. As usual riding through Axum gave me thrills. ‘What a glamorous and bustling metropolis the city presented; with traders coming from Egypt, Rome, and even as far as India’ I thought.
Most of the traders could easily conclude their businesses at the port of Adulis, but they still preferred to come to Axum to witness for themselves our culture and our famous obelisks. As we passed, I marveled as usual at the tallest of these monolithic structures, standing tall at 110 feet, with thirteen storeys carved upon it.
When we rode south through the jagged chain of mountains and followed the deep canyons created by Tekeze river in the West, I was reminded of the story Kaleb’s tutor told about the creation of our land. On the fourth day we arrived at the confluence of the Atbara and the Nile, where the stela was still standing intact. The stela resembled a smaller version of King Ezana’s obelisk, which towers 70 feet over our city of Axum. I traced the letters with my fingers after Kaleb read them out loud, ‘Praise be to almighty God who gave me, his servant an easy conquest during the battle to control Meroe!’.
I surveyed our bedroom one last time and rang the bell for the servant to collect the leather bags I had filled with our clothing. I should be grateful to be part of this glorious history in all of Christendom and to support my husband in his new role in Himyar.
A few years earlier, ayhudoch, the Jews from South Arabia started persecuting Christian traders, including Abyssinians. Emperor Kaleb with the support of Alexandria and the Byzantine government waged a war against the Himyarites Jews.
He prepared seven-two ships, and seventy thousand warriors and prayed;
‘Almighty God, the creator of the universe, who has multitude of angels at your disposal, Lord of Lords, Father of the Holy Saviour, in the name of your only child whom you have sent to earth to save us, witness the horrendous atrocities the Himyaritic Jews have inflicted on Christians, and do not shame me in my quest to seek vengeance for your children. If You, my Father deem my sins numerous and will not hear my prayer, please let me perish right now, instead of in battle. Please Lord do not let my people fall in the hands of the enemy, who denied You!’.
When Emperor Kaleb reached Himyar, the Jewish King Du Nuwas who was waiting for him with a thirty-thousand strong Jewish army, ordered the battle to begin. Du Nuwas’s army, who were waiting on ships, started raining arrows and spears on the Abyssinian fleet of ships. However, the Christian naval fleet had the advantage of a few experienced Byzantine commanders who advised the Abyssinian fleet to maintain strategic formation of ships.
Soon, in the heat of battle, some Himyarite ships drifted off the main body and were easily destroyed, while Du Nuwas’s ships came broadside to the Abyssinian ships and the two armies engaged in close range battle.
My brother Yakob, who was one of the commanders of the Abyssinian ships, ordered tankuas, reed boats to be lowered in the shallows and the soldiers climbed down ropes for the descent. Yakob ordered some of younger archers and slingers to stay on board the ship and cover those on boats with their arrows and slingshots.
Before the boats reached shore, the few Christian ships loaded with ballistae, started launching their imposing javelin, which overwhelmed the Hymyarite army on shore. Soon, hand-to-hand combat with spears and swords raged, with the Abyssinians pushing the Himyarites. Yakob’s good quality protective armour, presented to him by the Emperor himself, managed to fend of many of the fiery arrows from the enemy. The loyal young soldiers on the ship were more focused in covering their commanders than anyone else.
This gave Yakob, and many of the other officers a chance to fearlessly pursue their enemies on the abandoned horses, all the way to town. Du Nuwas, loath to witness the ransack of his domain, spurred his stallion into the sea, and drowned.
The Abyssinian Christian army thanked their God for the victory and showed mercy to the defeated army and civilians. They allowed them to bury their dead and pacified them by promising them that none of their properties would be looted.
Emperor Kaleb left an army of five thousand, and posted General Abreha as Viceroy. My younger brother Yakob was also to stay in Saa’na as General Abreha’s personal assistant. A few years on, Abreha rebelled and became the self proclaimed King of South Arabia. The Emperor, keen to avoid bloodshed among his own people, did not try hard to overthrow Abreha, instead he appointed my husband, as a financial councilor to collect South Arabian tribute from the wealthy land around Saa’na.
Yakob, who was keen to meet his little niece Azeb for the first time was waiting for us with a group of servants and horses, at the harbor of Himyar. Although he was attired like the local Arabs, I made out my brother as he swiftly walked along the quay in our direction. I leaned down and told Azeb that the man who was coming towards us was my beloved little brother. Azeb, skipped ahead towards the uncle she was meeting for the first time. I could hear Yakob’s booming laugh as he gave her a big hug and picked her up in his arms. He then said ‘Ahlan wa sahlan, habibti!’.
‘That sounds funny. What does it mean?’ enquired the inquisitive Azeb.
“It means ‘welcome my darling’ in the Arabic language. If you are indeed like me, as your mother claims, you will pick up Arabic in no time, little one’ he responded, as he put her down and rushed to greet us.
While we were riding to Saa’na where General Abraha and his men were stationed, Yakob explained; “Zafar was the capital of the Himyarites until we took over, and the Himyar were a tribal confederacy, which at one point extended as far as Riyadh’.
We rode through a colourful market town, where traders were unloading goods from their camels.
There was another market-town by the shore, Cana, the centre for frankincense” Yakob said pointing to the bay, “and facing it there were two desert islands, one called Island of Birds, the other Dome Island. All the frankincense produced in the country used to be brought by camels to Cana and loaded in boats. But nowadays, the demand for frankincense has gone down, since Christians prefer to bury their dead than embalm or cremate’.
“What does to embalm and cremate mean?” Azeb who was riding with me upon a beautiful stallion, called out
Yakob laughed and winked at me, ‘I will tell you all about it in good time my dear’.
“I’m ready Imma-Ma” Azeb said, as she dipped her quill into the ink. We had been in Himyar for some time but we were still adjusting to the sweltering heat.
‘Start with; May peace be with you Jan Hoi, your majesty. Relations between King Abreha and my husband are very good, thanks be to God. Although my diplomatic brother may have most to do with it as you can imagine.’
Ever since Azeb turned eight-years old, I have been asking her to write all my letters. Although I had picked up vast knowledge while Kaleb was being tutored, I had never been taught how to write or read.
With my daughter Azeb, it is an entirely different story. She does not have to scrape second hand knowledge, as I did. Her father taught her arithmetic, her uncle Yakob taught her languages – Ge’ez, Arabic and Greek, and I impart my knowledge through story telling.
Azeb, who seemed to have an extra-ordinary memory as well as a vivid imagination, took to writing like a professional scribe would. Although I worried from time to time, what kind of a wife she could possibly make, I dared not shatter her dream of being a scribe. If we were in Axum, things would have been different.
Azeb recorded in her scroll, how Axum had economically benefited from high revenues during King Abreha’s rule. She also charted how her uncle played a significant roll in keeping peace between the different tribes; particularly with the Bedouins, whose loyalty to King Abreha was paramount to keeping the trade routes safe.
She wrote; the Bedouins are sometimes thought to be as treacherous as the desert they live in. But my uncle Yakob knew otherwise. He not only forged a lifetime friendship with them but, made sure they stayed loyal to the King. Yakob claims he felt the closest to God, while he was staying with the barbarian Bedouins in the desert. Unlike King Abreha, whose life’s mission is to evangelize the barbarian Arabs, Yakob did not impose his Christian faith on the tribal people he forged strong relationships with.’
Yakob however, she continued, ministered to the Bedouins and Arabs through his actions’. The night he lost his Bedouin mistress to a merciless sandstorm which ravaged their camp in the dunes, Yakob fell down in the drifting sands to praise God; I saw the angle of the Lord, and lived. Glory be to the highest , he proclaimed.
His companions asked him what he meant. So he told them the story of Jacob from the Old Testament, after whom he was named. ‘A man wrestled with Jacob all through the night, but could not overpower him. When daybreak was approaching, the man said: let me go. But Jacob replied: I will not let you go unless you bless me. So the stranger told him that: His name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and men and have overcome’.
‘I too feel like I had fought with the angle of God. I am anguished because my beloved mistress is gone, but God spared my son and gave me his blessing, and I thank God for his mercy’, reasoned Yakob. The elders saw his wisdom and allowed him to take his son and raise him among his people.
Azeb also charted the achievements of King Abreha; ‘South Arabia was governed well and it grew prosperous under King Abreha’s rule. Axum, our Empire benefited both from the peace maintained in the trade route as well as from revenues. The king improved public works and built monuments and churches in South Arabia, in the hope to convert his subjects to Christianity. He also finished the repair of the Marib dam, which took years to complete. His successful rule was acknowledged by all of the powerful nations’.
Excerpt from Tarik; A collection of short stories by Bethlehem Attfield.